Nobody has the answer. But everybody does

I visit and observe many schools.  Most are struggling in one way or another with issues related to student achievement and behavior.  These schools typically seek out and then implement various programs designed to address their problems, improve their climate and raise the level of academic performance. 

This scenario is played out even at schools that are doing well. Leaders, whose job entails not just maintaining the status quo but improving their school, will attend a conference, read a professional book, or hear an expert and announce to the staff that there is something else they should be doing. 

The problem with this scenario is the message it sends to students and staff: they need something from the outside to make their school better--something they don’t already have. Too often this leads school communities on a wild-goose chase, searching for the answer or solution to their problems. When a program does not deliver its promised improved results, school leaders find a new one -- one more in tune with the latest research or policy mandate -- to take its place.

Veteran staff members who have lived through these cycles have learned that they can keep doing what they have always done, while waiting for the latest "change" to pass. No wonder that many schools seem stuck despite all the time and energy devoted to their improvement.

This problem of looking for the answer became very evident to me in a school I recently visited.  This school had a new, but experienced, principal who was brought in by central administration to turn it around -- meaning, overhaul academic and behavior. This principal quickly obtained the resources to import many services and programs designed to fix what was wrong and move the school in a positive direction.

From interviewing staff, I discovered that the principal enjoyed some staff support and an openness to try what he recommended. However, there were some staff members who questioned his approach and felt it was being imposed upon, rather than offered to them. 

I spoke with the principal and he alluded to this problem. He described his strategy for getting every staff member on board with all the programs and initiatives. He viewed the skeptical teachers, who did not readily cooperate, as obstacles to progress.  I mused to myself that these "resistant" teachers could just as easily been viewed as a valuable resource. They had many years experience in the school and community; they knew their students and cared deeply about them.

After my visit, I couldn't stop thinking about how caring and competent staff members could be viewed as an impediment to the school's progress. To me it was analogous to going on a journey to find something you think you need and along the way you trip over what you really need but toss it aside so you can keep searching. The writer, Robert Pirsig, aptly described this dilemma: "The truth knocks at the  door and you say 'Go away, I am looking for the truth'."

This school only had about 250 students and about 15 full time teachers. As I contemplated the situation, an image formed in my head: Putting every initiative on hold and taking these teachers to a comfortable location, closing the door and saying to them, "We have everything we need right now to make our school the place our students need and deserve. Let's figure out a way to do it.”

This would be a shocking statement but one I believe is true for any professional community of educators.  The only real reason that statement would be shocking is because it is so seldom uttered and staff have been conditioned to believe the opposite: the answer or solution needs to come from the outside, from people -- experts! -- who know more than the people who live and work in the school. Yes, school communities suffer from the Wisdom of Oz syndrome -- they are always searching for something that they already possess.

Putting staff in a room and making that statement is a starting point. Once that happens, though, school leaders should use an "ask, don't tell" approach. Here are some questions educators can think about and discuss:

  1. What type of school do we want to be?

  2. What are the values and beliefs that would support that school?

  3. How specifically are those values and beliefs manifested in our interactions with students, parents and with each other?

  4. What are we currently doing that we should keep doing in order to be that school?

  5. What are we currently doing that we should question and reconsider because it conflicts with our values and beliefs?

  6. What would be the school story of a student who is currently successful in our school? 

  7. What would be the school story of a student who is currently struggling in our school?

  8. Who are the students who are struggling? 

  9. What can we say and do differently to turn those students around and change their story?

There are no simple answers to those questions and that is good thing.  Educators need to stretch and struggle with the difficult human problems they face every day, but they need to do so together. They need to have the opportunity to think and discuss their challenges and resist the temptation of jumping to quick fixes, solutions or answers.

Schools improve when the answers that individual educators have gained through their experiences become connected and integrated into agreed upon collective actions. In sum, school improvement becomes inevitable when educators embrace and apply their collective wisdom and agency, rather than waiting for the answer or solution to come from someplace or someone else.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. Jim’s latest book Using Stories for Professional Development is now available for purchase. Jim has also authored "Peaceful School Bus", "No Place for Bullying", "Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities" and the picture book "Okay Kevin."

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